Cultural Appropriation

“Why am I still unable to wear this?” I bemoaned in Indonesian, tugging at my jarik1. I can finally put it on without help, but it always ends up looking baggy around my calves.

“It’s because you haven’t yet become a Javanese person,” my friend said.

In a way, I was glad to hear that. Lately, I’ve been worrying about cultural appropriation, something I’ve never seriously considered before.

About two years ago, one of my friends at Oberlin discovered an educational pamphlet on cultural appropriation in our co-op and read the good parts aloud to us. We then launched into a discussion about the reading, debated the degree to which dreadlocks were actually offensive, had a good laugh over hippies, and went back to doing real work or finding other ways to procrastinate from doing real work. Our conclusion was that the article made some good points, but that it had ultimately gotten a little crazy—condemning things like my dance teacher and I practicing Bharatanatyam—so we dismissed it.

But like I said, lately I’ve been thinking about it again, to the point where I’ve started reading articles on cultural appropriation, trying to determine my level of guilt. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find a concise definition of cultural appropriation. It’s a term with fuzzy borders that means different things for different people but has to do with a privileged person taking on aspects of a historically subjugated culture that is not their own. In doing so, this person disrespects the culture from which he or she is borrowing because of a lack of understanding of that culture. Examples that frequently come up include Madonna wearing a bindi and college hipsters wearing Native American headdresses, going to a party, and getting drunk.

However, there are less overt cases of cultural appropriation discussed as well: things like someone who’s studied abroad identifying strongly with their host country’s culture even though he’d only been there for a few months, things like people bringing back little statues of Hindu gods from India and keeping them in their homes. In neither of these cases has the person involved really adopted all aspects of the culture. He or she has picked the bits they find desirable and left off the rest.

Several months ago, someone asked me if I’d converted to Hinduism after I’d started learning Indian dance.

My answer, of course, was no. However, the question now seems quite relevant.

Bharatanatyam is a religious dance form. More often than not, the dances directly praise Hindu gods. Before and after I dance—whether a practice or a performance—I perform a short ritual to thank the earth for allowing me to dance on it.

I go through all these motions, but I’m not actually Hindu. For me, they’re not actually religious. Oh, they can be religious in the same way that I sometimes get the shivers when hearing a song in Indonesian about Allah, but ultimately they are not religious to me in the way they would be if I were a practicing Hindu.

So, cultural appropriation or not?

Of course it depends on your definition of cultural appropriation. For myself, I feel that I give the dance form the respect it deserves and I do not feel guilty for practicing it. For other people, I am absolutely guilty. There is an annual dance performance held at Oberlin that specifically excludes white performers for this very reason.

But I’m not suddenly worried that I’m committing gross acts of cultural appropriation by practicing Bharatanatyam in my living room. No, I’m concerned that I’m appropriating Javanese culture.

These are all typical activities for me:

  • Each morning, I look at my clothes and ask myself what would make me look the most Indonesian on the street.
  • I practice Javanese traditional dance, a dance form that—especially in the context of modern-day Indonesia—is much less religious than Bharatanatyam but nevertheless has a long cultural history of which I know next to nothing.
  • I answer to a Javanese name, bestowed on me by the people in my dance group. I’ve gone so far as to use this name at the photography studio where I went to get a roll of film developed, simply because it was easier than trying to go through the process of spelling and pronouncing Zoë.
  • For that matter, I use an Indonesian accent when I introduce myself as Zoë.
  • I often act in ways that I consider Javanese: speaking quietly, being very polite and indirect when stating any sort of opinion, frequently using formal terms of address in place of names, greeting people by shaking hands, acting deferential to people I see as my superiors.

All of these things, I suppose, aren’t that bad, except for one thing: in the act of performing them, I would love to be mistaken as Javanese. That’s where I feel like the cultural appropriation comes in. I’m not Javanese. I’m not adopting all aspects of the culture (some of my Oberlin hippy ideas just can’t square themselves with the more conservative ideals found here). And I’m the privileged one in this whole equation—most of the people I’m interacting with will never have an opportunity like the one I’m currently living.

Perhaps one thing that should be added into the equation is intention. I’m not doing any of this because (as often seems to be the case in examples of cultural appropriation) I find myself lacking in culture. I still identify as American, still feel attached to my Chinese background2. My real reason for wanting to blend in is just that—it makes interactions with people easier. If I’m not constantly being looked at as the foreigner, as someone different from everyone else, then I can be, in some ways, forgotten, can fade into the background a little, can interact a bit easier because I don’t seem quite so alien.

I’m under no illusions that this actually works. My thick accent and lack of vocabulary are dead giveaways that I’m different. But nevertheless, there are things that I can do to minimize this difference, and I embrace them wholeheartedly. Of course, they’re also the same things that could verge on cultural appropriation.

Now, there’s something to be said for assimilating into the culture in which you’re living. I think we can all agree that wearing shorts and a tank top, while possibly more in line with my own culture, would be completely inappropriate here. I also feel no need to wear a jilbab. If I did, it’s almost certain that everyone on the street would think I was Indonesian. However, jilbabs are a symbol of a religion that is not my own. Sure, maybe wearing one would make it easier to blend in, but it would also make me feel very strange.

So perhaps I’m not guilty. Maybe we’ll only really be able to judge when I return to the United States and we get to see if I continue to live by these new cultural norms that I’ve picked up or not. At this point, I really have no answers. I will say, though, that I’m going to keep trying to put that jarik on until it finally, finally looks the way it’s supposed to.


Two good blog posts on cultural appropriation: Claire Light, Lao Ren Cha

1The sarong-like article of clothing that I often wear in dance class.
2Something that could use more scrutiny. Is identifying as Chinese, for me, another form of cultural appropriation? I skirted around this idea a little in my previous post, but it still could use more thought.

8 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation

  1. Interesting post, Zoë.
    I think that wanting to fit in is a pretty natural human feeling. Also, not to deny the reality of cultural appropriation, which I agree is sometimes a serious issue, but I think that Javanese people would be far more appreciative than offended by your effort to learn their language and be like them, even if you’re not going to adopt their religion. I think that in cases like this, throwing around the label of “cultural appropriation” only shows ignorance on the part of the judger.
    (yes, I used the word judger.)

    Also, I appreciate your reference to the cultural appropriation pamphlet. lol, Oberlin.

  2. Very interesting blog Zoe and interesting response Mariko. I was then thinking about how I tried to fit in when I lived in Scotland or France long ago- which are, of course, much less intense of a cultural appropriation issue than Indonesia.
    You do what you are comfortable with but for sure don’t wear a tank top!

  3. Here I am, at the computer, sipping a delicious cup of tea that I just brewed from the tea your mother brought to me. It is VERY good, as are your posts.

    Fitting in is what I tried to do when I was in Germany, too. Since I was born there, came here when i was 4 at Hitler’s request (my father was Jewish), was it “cultural appropriation”? I sure did deny being German for a long time!

    • Yes, that’s a very interesting question that I’m still thinking about. Is me trying to fit in when I’m in Malaysia cultural appropriation? What about China?

  4. I enjoyed reading your blog, and found your reflections insightful. I have been combing the internet seeking a simple, straight-forward pamphlet (or article) introducing the topic of “cultural appropriation.” Do you have any idea where I might get a copy of the one that you read? Is there any literature (with clear wording) that you could recommend to me? Thank you : )

    • Oh man. I have no idea where that article came from. If I could remember exact phrases, I’d Google, but I can’t…sorry! I’d recommend starting with the two blog posts I linked here, though. They do a good job of laying out some of the ideas and issues inherent in the topic of cultural appropriation.

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